THREE TAKES On Climate change and Cultural Insecurity as threats to Diversity of Indigenous Communities

Leggot tebba maka gotom [1]:

Tossed out of the navel of Mother Sea; ripped apart by rising tides of change


Mucha-Shim Quiling Arquiza[2]

Lumah Ma dilaut center for living traditions

Zamboanga City, Philippines



In the obscurity of Mambaling in industrialized city of Cebu[3], out from the ashes of burnt slum rose for countless time this colony of tiny make-shifts erected out of garbage and human refuse. As recent migrants into this popular tourism capital in central Philippines, time and again, Sama Dilaut or Bajaus had been tossed in waves of ‘disastrous calamities’ either human-made or decreed by abruptly changing nature. They desperately swam upshore and clung to that much contested piece of the dump. Each time they were chased away, driven out or razed to the ground, they had always striven to reach land; and rehabilitated and re-built from scratch, they subsisted on begging and scavenging. As it was usual, on the heels of disaster followed alternate groups of missionaries of Baptists, protestant alliance church, Born-again and various stripes of Christian sects whose bags of relief goods and used clothes ‘fished-out’ the victims from the black murky mud of burnt asphalt and clay. These relief missions were also there to stamp the religionists’ respective seals and stood their crosses among the flimsy beggar installations. To eager missionaries, the itinerant indigenous people must have seemed like vomited out of Muslim-dominant south, and, by fate, washed into the benevolent Christian shores where they now populated its break-waters almost over-night.

Years of efforts seemed to have finally born fruit as one could now see a chapel and an apostolic center cum Sunday school becoming permanent fixtures among the Bajau shanties of Mambaling. It came to pass that more Bajaus who had chosen to stay long enough, were recruited, developed and graduated into catechists and missionaries. Unsurprisingly, they would then be denying their ancestral origins and refusing to be called Sama Dilaut anymore. Now staffing and maintaining the offices, young Bajaus also assisted in the holy gatherings in the chapel.

Among the Bajau converts was Antanani, a young man of early 30’s, who was fluent in the local language and repeatedly emphasized his claim to be ‘Cebuano’ (or ‘from Cebu’) by birth. Antanani introduced himself as the tribal chieftain of that particular Sama Dilaut colony, where his two adult sisters, Pasitas and Milba, were serving as catechetical instructors and ministers. The girls were also currently enrolled in the local university as scholars of the pastors. Antanani’s mother, Omboh Bissiya, lived alone at the far end of the village with an old tubby-cat in a dinghy dwelling of sticks and stacked-up carton and tattered old sack for her roof. She was the only living octogenarian then and had been considered priestess and midwife by older members of the clan. But strong criticisms and open repudiation by younger Bajaus shamed the crone, causing her to retreat to her hermitage. Prevailed from displaying her shamanic craft and banned from practicing the ancestral rituals called pag-omboh, only on very rare and closely kept secret occasions did the old recluse heed urgent requests of clan elderly to heal the sick and drive away pestilence’. As a panday , she still attended to most birthing and burial rite for women since health services remained minimal in that village. But Antanani, the Christian pastor, was evasive to confirm or answer questions from visitors pertaining to his mother, and as the local chieftain, he forbade that outsiders should see and talk to Omboh Bissiya.

Concealed in lumps and mounds of amalgamated carton boxes, styrofoam and polythene crates and bags, scrap metal, discarded sack, cloth, wood and human excreta, similar colonies such as this have also sprouted up in many other parts of lahat bisaya or Christian-dominant lands, from the northern-most Pangasinan province in Luzon down the dip of General Santos City in southern Mindanao. In Mindanao city of Iligan, a Bajau enclave up-to-now capped the heap of Tambakan or garbage dumpsite in Pala-o market; while Cagayan de Oro city was once an indifferent host to a growing slum of Bajau stilt-houses conveniently facing the wharf, along the jetties of Tulaytabako, whom some informants in hushed interviews revealed to be also haven for drug-trafficking and gun-smuggling[4].

The coasts and beach-fringes of Philippine’s largest city and famed multicultural Metropolitan Davao had also been sanctuaries to a number of this tribe’s clan-communities. In fact, varied groups of itinerant indigenous communities surging upland from the islands and rolling downhill from hinterlands have converged into the valley afoot of Mount Apo that was Davao City. Their waves continued swelling, promising no let-up so long as ostensible forces of human and nature uprooted them from the vowels of ancestors where food had become scarce, shelter insecure and ecological environment devastated both by the drastically changing climate and intermittent armed conflicts.  In migrant lands, resettlement villages were built usually through initiatives and resources of civic organizations or religious missions who, unabashedly proud of their successful projects, enthusiastically ‘rescue, rehabilitate and convert’ the indigenous people who are presumed to be pagans.

In early 2000’s, one such community came upon a coastal district of Davao City that, just like any modern industrial housing projects, was plugged as the New Jerusalem for the Bajaus. The civilizing mission celebrated and launched a sanctuarium of sparklingly clean streets and neat row of freshly-nailed bamboo and palm thatches mimicking traditional Bajau stilt houses in the south. Awed visitors would have sworn that those displays of jubilant yet idyllic lifestyle were for real, especially as seemed confirmed  by a parade of bathed and powdered children trooping to their catechism classes that Sunday, and by well-combed women smartly dressed in newly-sewn traditional garb appearing hardly-ever-sweaty under that mid-day sun. They contentedly idled their day weaving straw mats and bags that visitors might take away as souvenirs to decorate their airconditioned homes or offices. In between smiles poised for the cameras, they candidly chatted with visitors – who were, as they must have been briefed, to be potential donors and benefactors of this fantastic project.

‘We become sea-sick when travelling by boat’, they had reported, while fretting and feigning shock when asked if they would still go out fishing or would they still be observing the seasonal gathering of crustaceans and sea-plants, old-time leisure which were supposed traditional for Sama Dilaut. Yet, one could never have traced any fakery when teen-aged girls giggled and cried in unison, seeming unembarrassed and proud to declare that they didn’t know how to dance the igal and had never been taught how to play the kulintangan – traditional instruments that accompanied the dance. Every old cultural master had all long gone to their graves before they were even born. As even older women had already forgotten both art and science of living at sea they felt it no longer important to learn old wisdom, especially now that everyone were happy and seemed contented of the comforts that all these educational activities, ‘loans’ and entrepreneurial projects provided by their benefactors had brought. In contrast to those of their kind who remained stuck in the homeseas, these teeners, both boys and girls, dreamt of getting and finishing some education in the hope of becoming employed wage-earners. For now, their immediate wishes were for benevolent groups to install potable water and bring electricity into their households so that they would never have to read their textbooks under the sooth of lamps lighted only by kerosene; some had begged for television sets or computers wired into their learning centers and installed in their homes so as ‘to learn about the world out there’; and, as if on an afterthought, ‘clean and decent toilets, please!’.  No doubt, mirages and facades of appeasement and contentment, pretentious projects and showy homesteads as these were also aptly titled. It was the Ahon Badjao (Fish-out the Badjaos) and Badjao Hope in Zamboanga City. Some had livelihood and education projects to boot, as ‘Lifting-Indigenous-People-from-Indignity’ (LIPI), that never attempted to be subtle or hid its condescension. But most patronizing was that newish village in Davao’s playa boldly baptized as ‘Good-Jao’ village. Often, the magic of dreamville would not last very long, however, to see to the last of Bajao soul of the clan turned godly prosperous. Restless and heeding the memories of the sea, in trickles, one family after another, and on pretext of burying their dead or observing maulud or to fulfil some mundane tradition, soon came the usual excuses to go home. They packed whatever they could carry, gone back to their lahat sama and never to be seen or heard in Good-Jao or projects promising hope ever again. One could only wonder if perhaps they had taken back to fishing and gathering crustaceans afterall, or by-chance, maybe anchored upon a new shore, in another lahat bisaya, for sure, or snared into their nets yet another school of benevolent charities elsewhere where relief goods were aplenty and loan projects more generous.

Animated by faceless and nameless people, lahat hangkut or artificially resettled villages are never documented in government censuses, for two very obvious reasons: one, they are eye-sores and, two, they are invisible[5]. Yet they do exist and continue to multiply in the jetties, coasts and dumpsites in major cities of the country to this day and would most likely be of Sama Dilaut clans from Sulu, Basilan or Zamboanga. They are captive villages of whose only trace of the rich and colourful historic past and memory of ancestors would probably be contained in a rectangular relic of two-by-three feet icebox or styrofoam baul or chest where various paraphernalia for conducting the ritual of pag-omboh or ancestral reverence would be lovingly kept by the oldest of the women, the clan’s shaman. Omboh Kuraysiya of Tulaytabako used to hold on to that baul, wrapped and tied in her one and only new batik sarong, that she also carried to her grave. And so did Omboh Bissiya in Mambaling who had vigiled in the night crouched inside her scrappy tent and hugging her plastic crate to her side, when rumors went around that arsonists would strike back. Babuh Nunuk, was also one such woman trustee and spiritual leader in her early fifties, who attempted to revive tradition and had her mother’s baul  secured as she sailed away with the last remaining relative in 2007 from Hongkong, a floating village interior of Si Mariki, Zamboanga City where scores of Bajaus, young and old, had silently vanished after gotten tired of threats of being gutted down and of being periodically harassed by local thugs and toughies allegedly commissioned by disgruntled local officials who had blamed and lashed at the Bajaus for a supposed big infra-structure project to be funded by Japanese ODA (i.e. official development assistance) that was botched and disengaged by the agencies. So the constant fear made the Bajau families decide to flee and disperse into various corners farther north. Babuh Nunuk’s clan sailed on for weeks and finally pulled up shore in Puerto Princesa in Palawan.

The Sama dilaut used to ply the waters of Sulu, Basilan and southwestern Zamboanga provinces in western Mindanao. They were semi-nomadic and had houses called lumah ma dilaut built right in the middle of the sea, propped up on stilts above the waters, or stuck on piles of coral reefs and rocks. Until the early 1990s many of the Sama Dilaut in western Mindanao were still ag-pala’u or lived in boat houses. For instance,  moorages were still observed spending some nights letting the monsoon pass by along old Cawa-cawa boulevard and some pitched their stilt- tents in the coves  of Zamboanga City’s waterfront before everything was bulldozed and developed into plush La Vista resorts and golf course. Even then, the only permanent structures that they would have constructed and returned to on land were the lumah mehe or spirit houses and the pagkubulan burial gardens. Most of the Sama Dilaut were animists and practiced ancestral reverence called pag-omboh and performed propitiations to the forces of nature and offered food and buntings in thanksgiving to the generosity of the sea and land. Since Sulu, Basilan and Zamboanga were also home to various ethnolinguistic communities of mostly Islamized Moro people, many Sama Dilaut also observed Islamic rituals. In fact, other  traditional Muslim ethnic groups like the land-based Sama in these provinces used to revere their ancestors, too, through special and elaborate rituals and by their litany of clan genealogy and remembrance of their forebears during prayers. They honoured their ancestors and sought for their intercession in sickness and pestilence in rituals easily integrated and harmonized into the Islamic sufi beliefs of the silsilah or ka-usulan, a practice of ancestral respect that was later branded by modernist puritan Muslims as innovation (bid’a), albeit permissible to some, was considered as ‘folk’ belief and later generally discouraged. In Sulu, for instance, ethnic clans who were devout Muslims observed holy days such as the maulud, nisfu Sha’ban, and fasting during auspicious months and at the same time used these occasions to conduct the pag-omboh, pag-tangas [6] and pilgrimage to graves of local saints or pag-suh ni kubur. As relationships among sea and land-based ethnic communities galvanized, some members of Sama Dilaut clans joined regular Muslim congregational services in the langgal[7] where a number of them had converted to Islam and followed its five pillars. With that change, too, had to be the decision to abandon sea nomadic life and live on land forever. Anthropologists and sociologists who came to study and were mostly foreigners and non-natives  whose informants were usually educated and economically well-off  members of affluent families of Sama and Muslims later reported that the Sama Dilaut were also Islamized like the land-based counterpart, and arbitrarily classified them as the 13th Bangsamoro ethnolinguistic grouping.

Yet even in their home seas amongst Muslim communities the Sama Dilaut, as Bajaus of Philippine seas were called, could not have always been assured of their security and their practices and traditions were not always appreciated and recognized. Much lesser were they respected and protected from sporadic violence and onslaught of aggressive forces of cultural chauvinism and religious intolerance.

[insert par on the impact of climate change and food insecurity in the home seas]

In contemporary situation, intermittent and protracted civil war have been turning into a highly insecure and mobile populations the conflict-prone Muslim Mindanao region whose villages, islands and cities are constantly militarized and, as matter of government’s counter-insurgency policy. Populations are periodically hamletted into lahat hangkut (i.e. forcibly evacuated or relocated en-masse) causing massive displacements and severe disintegration of many ethnically-formed kampongs (traditional villages and clan-based communities). Conflict situations have been pushing socially fragile and dispersed nomadic societies like ethnic communities further into the fringes and, for many, force them to move into newish villages where they are not only dismembered from familiar kin-groups but are also forced into sharing fences with traditionally feuding clans or ‘tribal enemies’ and dreaded ethnic groupings. It could also be that populations of warring ethnic groupings, who are often more dominant and aggressive are indiscriminately relocated by government rehabilitation and resettlement programs into traditional settlements of nomadic Sama Dilaut, there, makeshift structures give way to more permanent ones, and subsistence fishing is replaced by more rigorous market-based livelihood and the demands of more permanent and seasonal agriculture dictates and moulds a new lifestyle shaping-up a new culture that rules as standard, usually in the form of mainstreaming of purist Muslim practices. External symbols of being devout Muslim in dress and day-to-day rituals also become the signature for the modern and elite who have the opportunities to attend school, go on pilgrimage to Arabia or to engage in leisurely tourism. Since religion and sociopolitical affinity become major bases for communal cohesiveness, consequently, religious intolerance and socio-cultural chauvinism arise, resulting to more and more Sama Dilaut choosing to leave their flotilla-houses and fleeing to lahat bisaya (i.e. Christian land) and there get reconverted to yet another faith. ###


[1] This paper is partly based on an ongoing action research of Lumah Ma Dilaut on Leggot tebba maka gotom: mitigating the impact of climate change and indigenous peoples’ adaptive capacity through use of indigenous wisdom supported by UNESCO-LINKS (2010)

[2] Born in Laminusa island, Sulu, Philippines, this author is an ethnic Sama and is founding directress of the Lumah Ma Dilaut School for Living Traditions.  A community organizer and cultural worker advocating for culturally-appropriate and liberating values-based education , she is also a UN lobbyist, she has attended and spoken at the UN Working Group meetings on Minority issues (now UN Forum on Minorities) in Geneva, Switzerland championing the issues of nomadic and pastoralist communities, indigenous/ethnic and religious minorities in diaspora and interrogating the appropriateness of mainstream development paradigms and human rights frameworks.  She holds a Master’s degree in Communications from the Ateneo de Manila University, Philippines, and currently working on a PhD in interreligious studies at Gajah Madah University, Indonesia.


[3] From 2004 through 2007, Lumah Ma Dilaut center for Living traditions, in cooperation with various charities including the UN Voluntary Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, Minority Rights Group International and OXFAM-Great Britain, embarked on an action research attempting to initiate a ’return-reintegrate-regenerate cultural energy’ project for sea nomads in Western Mindanao as alternative to the classic ‘rescue-rehabilitate-convert’ schemes by religious missions and charity groups. Mambaling in Cebu City was one of the sites of study. Other lahat hangkut visited were in Pagadian City, Cagayan de Oro City, Iligan City and Davao City, all in Mindanao, Philippines.

[4] An interesting account of the Sama dilaut of Tulaytabako by HAGS, Inc. in 2002 is published in MSUAcademic Journal.

[5] cite CSO figures from report of NCIP as quoted by LMD

[6]  A ritual of public display and blessings of ancestral heritage or pusaka with incense, food offering and prayers

[7] Prayer hall

About Mucha Q. Arquiza
Supports the preservation and promotion of indigenous knowledge systems

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